Depression and Traumatic Brain Injury: Can Mindfulness Help?

It can happen in the blink of an eye . . .

. . . a healthy person on the way to work is suddenly blindsided by another car, and the aftermath can impact not only the driver, but her family and friends as well.

Woman Depressed. Series

Months, maybe even years of surgery, physical therapy, care giving, and treatment may follow and, in the case of traumatic brain injury (TBI), lingering depression may result.

That’s why Michel Bédard, PhD, and fellow researchers at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine wanted to look at the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) to reduce symptoms of depression among people who had suffered a TBI.

Researchers assigned participants to either an MBCT treatment group or a control. Those in the treatment group took part in a 10-week program during which they were introduced to elements of MBCT including meditation techniques, breathing exercises, gentle yoga, awareness of thoughts and feelings, acceptance, and staying in the present.

In order to address issues particular to TBI, however, some of the exercises were adapted to focus specifically on problems of attention, concentration, memory, and fatigue. Participants engaged in weekly one and a half hour sessions as well as recommended 20-30 minute at-home practice sessions.

So what did Bédard and his team find out at the end of the 10 weeks?

Compared to their baseline measures, those who had participated in MBCT experienced a reduction in symptoms of depression.

Beautiful portrait of a happy couple smiling outdoors

What’s more, this result was still present three months after completion of the study.

While these findings are encouraging, we do need to keep in mind certain limitations. For instance, participants self-selected into the study. In addition, researchers relied on participants’ self-reports regarding how well they had adhered to the assigned home exercises.

If you’re interested in reading more about this study, it was published in September, 2013 in The Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation.

How has mindfulness eased symptoms of depression for you or your clients? Please tell me about it in the comments below.


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  1. gilles says:

    We can’t be always in control of are disturb thinking. A calm mind means good understanding on TBI and support. Yes they learn us to be aware of are emotions, but it does not take long to go back in my day-lay habits, specially as I was a TBI on the loose for multiples years…..they lost more then half of their opportunity for a high score regarding treatments for a TBI. It’s like try to show an old gorila of how it should behave >?

  2. Nancy Helmers, Switzerland says:

    It’s an encouraging study although was surprised that awareness of our bodies and movement was missing. Movement is life. Awareness of thoughts and feelings are great but they are not “real”. But when we lie on the floor and do a small, simple movement, noticing where we feel the movement throughout our bodies (using the floor to give us true feedback–the floor does not lie to us). As Mia Segal said in her MBS Academy (Mind Body Studies) practitioner’s training, “WHO is doing the movement? Is it the mind? Is it the body?” We approach the true connection to our “selves”. Yoga and Tai Chi and so many other “methods” are great but do not approach this connection so directly. And they are all made so much more potent when we have this awareness.

    I recommend the books “Awareness Through Movement” and “The Case of Nora”, both by Moshe Feldenkrais. “The Case of Nora” is a case study of an extremely intelligent woman who suffered a debilitating brain stroke and her amazing recovery through her work with Feldenkrais, which was a “last resort”.

  3. Al Colvin says:

    It helps me for the moment; the moment when I am in the moment. Otherwise, I just want my life back!

  4. kevin cooper, corporate attorney- but currently disabled, Long Island NY says:

    When I read the email I thought “how in the world does Ruth know that I had a (TBI).” I am 46 years old and 4 years ago a chiropractor caused a dissection of major arteries in my neck and head (vertebral-bassilar) which led to 3 brainstem strokes that left some unwelcome residuals, including a central pain condition (from damage to my central nervous system), respiratory, fatigue and balance issues. I was a corporate attorney and now I am unable to work at all. Just about everything can trigger or worsen the pain, such as cold temperature, loud / poor quality noise, strong emotions (good and bad), stress, concentrating for more than brief periods of time, etc. There are no drugs that are able to mitigate the pain so I started trying the alternative pain therapies. I started with Yoga, then incorporated more meditation and quickly and luckily found Jack Kornfelds’ teachings on Insight Meditation/Vispassina Budhism. While I am biased towards the Mindfulness practice that I know, Mindfulness is like a road map home for people with damage to their CNS. Unfortunately, it is much easier to say than it is to live it. Inthe worst of times I find myself pushing my practice away rather than embracing it. It doesn’t make sense but it just happens.

    • Al Bailey says:

      Ayahausca was and is the most powerful medicine to help me yet from TBI and NDE. Grateful for a natural approach.

    • Al Bailey says:

      Peace…”HOW” to relate to life through breathing mindfully is the missing piece and this is unique for each one of us.

  5. Glenda Lynn, Psychotherapist & Brain Injury Counselor, San Marcos, CA, says:

    I’ve recovered from several mild traumatic brain injuries including brain surgery. Being a psychotherapist I understand completely how emotional trauma will linger on for a long time after the physical brain has healed. I have worked with many individuals, couples and especially women to help them understand why this injury is called The Silent Injury. I am so glad to receive this email from you. This injury is so easily overlooked, misdiagnosed and invalidated.

    • gilles says:

      Misdiagnosed and invalidated. I know the feeling…but something ill will never be able to fully understand. In the Ontario Court of Division of 93, as a chance that I put my finger on this document….all the mechanism of the accident is very well explain, confirming my body at 150 feet from impact(motor bike MVA) and i was a TBI on the loose, even if the TBI was written in that specific document. Misdiagnosed and invalidated..? Not always Ahahaa!! Insurance company they have the capacity to buy your Lawyer and your Doctors and have them say that their is nothing wrong with the patient…and that put down their cost . And letter on, they will all meet up in a fancy restaurant and spent a % of the patient cash, as they eat awesome good shit as they share some laughter with a few drinks. So at the end of the night, the king shit Insurance guy in charge will give each one an envelope with a fat bonus in it…..and some of us are stock as a TBI on the loose because of those Narcissistic fuckers that have no empathy for the human kind. They will leave you broke, without treatments are monotherapy, and your life will be a mess as you look back at it..! So that is the TRUTH about misdiagnosed and invalidated situation.

  6. Judith Rau says:

    Rilke states that fear is a dragon that guards our greatest treasures. I use mindfulness to allow myself to acknowledge the fear without owning it or identifying with it. I simply say “fear is here and this is how it feels and as Jack suggests surround it with white light of love and compassion”. I sense that the fear is often from the uncertainty of the moment/future. When I am finished my meditation I remind myself that uncertainty means I have choices and can create wonderful things for my self through my intention. I allow my inner guidance system to help me with the right choice. This is something I did not do before I began mindfullness practices.

  7. John F. Quinn. Feldenkrais practise, NYC, USA says:

    John F. Quinn

    Recently, in an “assisted lving Facility, I Met an old lady with no eyes. They had been surgically removed.
    She walks with her head down” and she screams a lot. She has sufferred more than myself.
    I practice walking through the city streets. the Feldenkrais work really helps

    John Quinn

  8. Kathleen , Licensed Professional Counselor. Ashland OR says:

    Wonderful. The timing of the program did not work for me, but i loved the possibility of working with Jack Kornfield and being in cyber community.

  9. Nancy Meskerkid, writer, Brooklyn, NY says:

    I have a TBI, Cranial Sacral Therapy and yoga have helped me tremendously.

  10. Canada says:

    I have also found Feldenkrais to be a powerful tool for mindfulness. It gently brings you into your body. . Fear is always in the future and your body is always in the present moment. Mindfulness of our body brings safety and peace of mind.

  11. Carol A. Westphal, LCSW, Fredericksburgt, VA says:

    I am using MBCT in tandem with other Mindfulness-based integrative techniques based on the work of Daniel Siegel’s concepts of interpersonal neurobiology to work with vets and others experiencing PTSD, trauma, anxiety, mood disorders, depression. What I have found in addition to symptom regression, is a reported overall feeling of empowerment and gratitude that they are no longer at the mercy of their symptomology nor are their symptoms enmeshed any longer with their sense of identity.

  12. Roger Bailey, Ph.D., psychologist, silverdale, Washington says:

    Mindfulness as we use it in Tai Chi with Dr. Paul Lams program has many of the same benefits you have detailed in your program. It is a slow, continuous designed process of activity that encourages sustained focus and facilitates change of mental states. It has a powerful influence on health and wellness. Several studies by the Harvard medical school and with veterans of PTSD also reflect successful behavioral adaptions. Just something to consider.

    • Demelza says:

      Thanks for shginra. Always good to find a real expert.

    • Barbara, USA says:

      Appreciated your comments so much, Roger. I am one of those ‘veterans’ of, in my case, complex pts and hx of tbi who wondered if Dr. Lam’s tai chi might also be another good piece to add to my recovery/healing journey….along with the guided imagery (thanks, BR) and other practices. Several years ago, I attended a training for instructors and found the practice to be as you noted. Definitely worth considering!

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